Do You Want To Be Well?
Freedom can be frightening. In fact, even the thought of freedom can spark fear. We live because God freely chooses to give us life and God’s free choice enables us to be free. The only way we can be as God wants us to be, to be – in fact – as God Himself is, is by accepting God’s gift of freedom. Of course, because we’re free we’re always free to reject our own freedom. God wants you to be free, and God wants you to be well. The question is: “Do you want to be well?”
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Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent
There was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem at the Sheep Gate a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. In these lay a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be well?”
The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.”
Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” Immediately the man became well, took up his mat, and walked.
Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” He answered them, “The man who made me well told me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’“ They asked him, “Who is the man who told you, ‘Take it up and walk’?”
The man who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away, since there was a crowd there. After this Jesus found him in the temple area and said to him, “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.”
The man went and told the Jews that Jesus was the one who had made him well. Therefore, the Jews began to persecute Jesus because he did this on a sabbath.
John 5, 1-16
DO YOU WANT TO BE WELL?
After this Jesus found him in the
temple area and said to him,
“Look, you are well; do not sin any more,
so that nothing worse may happen to you.” John 5, 14
Before we direct our attention to the specifics of today’s reading, I’d like to make a general comment about the Gospel of John. The gospel writer, throughout his narrative, seems to take every chance he can to say something nasty about Jews. He does it over and again –it’s really impossible to overlook, and it’s nothing for us Christians to be proud of.
As I’ve said numerous times, the Bible ought to come with a warning label; but since it doesn’t, I’ll give you a warning here. If you’re going to utilize the scriptures as you walk the disciple’s path, you really need to keep a sharp eye out for the ‘spiritual potholes’ along the way. John has a great deal to offer to those who take the trouble to give a wide berth to the anti-Semitic hoo-hah he uses to season his teachings. God knows what He’s doing, and for reasons we may not understand He’s chosen to use imperfect human vessels to convey His word. Whatever else it may be, the Bible is not an example of perfection. End of warning.
Today we see Jesus 1) encounter a sick man, 2) ask him if he’s willing to be healed, 3) cure him and 4) eventually caution him to avoid sin. That’s more than enough for us to contemplate here.
Even though the man in this story is described only as someone “who had been ill for thirty-eight years”, the common practice among those who use this text for spiritual instruction is to assume that the man is a paralytic. The clues we get from the rest of the story lead us to that conclusion.
In the Bible, the condition of paralysis – along with the conditions of blindness, physical death and imprisonment – are conditions used to describe the state of sin. Even if our bodies are hale, our spirits are paralyzed as a result of sin. Because of this paralysis, we’re incapable of fulfilling God’s will – no matter how we try. We have to be released from sin before we have the choice to avoid sin. Sin itself, you see, causes us to sin.
The first thing to do when you consider this passage is to identify your own difficulties doing as God wills with the sick man’s paralysis. The man Jesus met at the Sheep Gate had been sick for thirty-eight years. How long have you been trapped by sin? The man who kept attempting to reach the pool at Bethesda was constantly stymied by his own broken body. Can it be that your broken spirit keeps you from reaching the waters of holiness?
Does it seem strange to you that Jesus took the time to ask the man in this story whether he wanted to be well? It’s kind of a ‘stupid question’, don’t you think? It is, but it enables the man to take part in his own deliverance. The man’s willingness to be saved is an essential part of his very salvation. Jesus already knows he wants to be well just as he already knows why the man remained sick despite his earnest desire to leave his illness behind. Jesus knows the problem, but he allows the man to explain it for himself: “I can’t get better on my own. I need help; but I have no one to help me.”
As we contemplate the details of this man’s physical healing, we can garner lessons about the process of our own spiritual healing. The man couldn’t be saved without Jesus; but, at the same time, Jesus wasn’t going to heal him unless he himself participated in the healing. So it is with us. There’s no more reason for you to beat yourself over the head for being a sinner than there would for this man to blame himself for not making his own way to the pool. So true. So very true. And yet, God’s offer of a return to spiritual health is one we’re entirely free to accept, or to reject. It’s entirely, absolutely, one hundred percent up to us, just as it’s entirely, absolutely, one hundred percent up to Jesus. Is that hard to understand? If it’s not, you’re not paying attention!
Near the end of the story, Jesus gives the man a piece of information he probably never considered. Jesus explains to him that, just as he was free to accept or reject healing while he was sick, he continues to be free to choose now that he’s well. What does that tell us about the freedom we have with respect to our salvation? It tells us something that is really pretty scary.
God has no intention of turning us into robots once he’s healed us. We’re never going to reach the point where we can fly on ‘automatic pilot’. We will always, to be philosophical about it, live in the existential terror of our own agency. Salvation is always a choice. Health is a choice. Life is a choice. Freedom is a choice, and freedom can be frightening.
An entirely apt word we can use to signify the state of sin is ‘hell’. The gospels depict a Son of God who frees the people around him from paralysis, and blindness, even from death itself. The God who lives is a God of freedom; but the door to prison is forever open. Hell is a reality. There’s always a ‘Vacancy’ sign out front. Hell is always willing to “leave the light on for you”. Freedom is what happens when we accept God’s gift, when we let God take the lead; but freedom is also the freedom to go off on your own and to put yourself first.
Be forewarned. To put the self first is to be trapped by selfishness; to be trapped by selfishness is to live in a state of sin; to live in sin is to be in hell. Jesus warned the man he cured to avoid sin. He could have said, “I’ve done my part. Freedom is in your hands now.” While we live in sin, we’re deluded by the thought that freedom is about doing as you like. When real freedom comes along we discover that the opposite is true.
Life is a challenge to those who are sick; but it’s even more of a challenge to those who become well. It’s only when we become well that we know what wellness really means. When we’re well we know that wellness depends on us depending on God. We must depend on God, and depend only on God; but to depend only on God is to depend on ourselves to resist the temptation to depend on ourselves. That is the mystery of salvation; and, as I said before, if you think that’s easy to understand you’re not paying attention.